Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Ironman New Zealand Race Report

Race week began for me on Tuesday with the rental of a miniscule car in Queenstown and a 9-½ hour drive to the ferry in Picton at the very northern tip of the South Island. After a late-night arrival at Diane and Aled’s house in Wellington, I slept, caught up with them for a few minutes in the morning and then pressed on for another 4-½ hour drive to Taupo. Driving into town, I pass Kiwi legend and six-time winner of IMNZ, Cameron Brown, on his bike.

Not long after checking into my cool little hotel, I discover that Paul and Mike, two of my fellow Epic Campers, are staying at the same place! With 1200 athletes spread between a couple hundred hotels and motels in town, the chances of 3 of the 5 competing Epic Campers picking the same hotel is almost as small as my rental car.

I sneak in a short ride Wednesday evening and a short run Thursday evening. The rest of Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday manage to get filled up with the simple tasks of registration, bike inspection, mandatory wetsuit cleaning, race meeting, and gear check-in. It amazes me how these few obligations have a way of consuming an inordinate amount of time. After these and eating, it seems like there’s barely time to relax.

A few weeks back, my helmet got a light squish in the hinge of a car trunk. After manhandling the helmet over his knee, the bike inspector finds a hairline crack and fails the inspection. I have no choice but to go to a local shop and pay not only New Zealand prices, but also Race Week prices for a new helmet. This equates to over twice the US price, and this is not factored into my bartender-wage budget. I’m not happy, but it’s done.

I had started my carbo-loading on Wednesday and topped it off with lots and lots of pasta Friday night. I go to bed about 9pm and fall asleep pretty easily. Race morning begins at 3:45 with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a Clif Bar, a banana, and some tea. My gear was all checked in on Friday, so I actually have some time to relax after breakfast and to keep my head in a good place.

I make it to the transition area around 5:45, get body-marked, and air my tires. With the activity buzzing all around me, I find myself relaxing more and more; I’ve got all day to get excited and I’m not exactly keen to start the race nervous and jumpy. I head down to the water at about 6:40, pull my wetsuit on, stretch, and surrender my dry-clothes bag to the volunteers.

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Suiting up

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Ready for fun and games!

Most everybody is already in the water, so I wade in and find an open spot to warm up for a couple of minutes. This will be my first large mass-start swim (remember, 1200 of us), and I’m pretty sure that I don’t want to get kicked in the head, so I hang out about 40-50m back from the line, out of the crowd, and bide my time. I’ve found a shallower spot that I can stand on, and with just a couple minutes to go, I feel the loose skin from a weeks-old blister on my heel flapping around; I had forgotten to trim it back. I spend the last minutes before the gun goes off picking at my heel underwater.

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The famous washing machine

And we’re off! Even though I’ve started back from the group, it’s still mayhem. I very actively work to ensure that I don’t get knocked out and work my way through swimmers until the groups shake out and a pace develops. The water is calm and the weather is good, and the kilometers fly by. I come out of the water in 1:05, and I couldn’t be happier. I feel fresh and that’s a time that’s quite good for me.

We’ve got a few-minutes-long run up to T1, and they’ve got a narrow strip of carpet laid down. Passing anybody would require running on an unfavorable surface, so I just get in line and jog. T1 goes smoothly and it feels good to be on the bike.

The breeze has started to pick up, and we’ll have a headwind for our first and third legs out to Reporoa and a tailwind for our second and fourth legs back into Taupo. With 1200 people on a substantially flat course, it’s inevitable that there will be some drafting, especially at the beginning of the bike before people’s paces level off. Many people are taking pains to ride legally 7m behind the next bike, but many are not. Before long, technical officials start handing out drafting penalties. I’m glad for this, because enforcing drafting penalties seems to be the only way to break some of these groups up. I do see many groups, more so near the front of the race, that are riding legally, spot on at 7m spacing.

Within about 30km on the bike, my hip flexors are starting to complain and so is my lower back. I start coming out of the aero bars to stretch far more often than I’d like; I haven’t even been riding all that hard. Then I remember that I entirely neglected to adjust my seat height to accommodate my much thinner race shorts. To a non-cycling reader, a quarter or three-eighths of an inch may seem like a pittance, but it’s actually a huge change in position and will affect my riding quite a bit. I realize that I’ve made a pretty silly mistake and press on into the wind.

Just before the end of the first lap, at about 85km, it starts raining. Coming into town, one rider goes down on a corner close enough in front of me that his wheel is still spinning when I get there. Leaving town, another rider goes down on a corner close enough in front of me that he’s just rolling into the fetal position and going into shock when I come around. I stop at special needs for my second 1000-calorie bottle of Infinit and head back out for the second lap. The headwind is stronger now and the rain is intermittent but far more present than absent. My hip flexors and lower back are pretty unhappy by now, and I’m a bit off my desired pace, but everything’s pretty under control. The last leg back into Taupo is substantially aided by the tailwind and I capitalize on the free speed to pass 30-40 racers who are using the last 30km of the ride to freshen their legs for the run. I’m just feeling warmed up. I reach T2 after 5:44 on the bike and with 6:55 on the race clock.

It’s raining steadily when I get to T2 but there’s not really anything I can do about it. With 6:55 on the race clock, I realize that a 10-hour race will require a pretty incredible run. Being realistic tells me that a 3-hour run may be beyond my capabilities, but my slower ride has left me with lots of energy and I decide to find out just how fast I can run a marathon. Not more than a kilometer into the run, Cameron Brown and Kieran Doe come towards me on the start of their second lap. When I saw them last on the bike, Kieran had about 5 minutes on Cameron, and he got it up to 7 minutes by the end of the bike. Now, halfway into their marathon, Cameron has caught Kieran and has a couple hundred meters on him, and Kieran looks knackered. I get my legs under me within about 2km and realize that I feel pretty good.

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Lining up my first pass as we leave T2 and head over the highway

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Less than 3km in and my legs feel great

I had changed my socks in T2, but it’s raining hard enough that my socks and shoes get wet quickly. Within a few kilometers, I can feel a big blister forming on the ball of my right foot. Soon, I can also feel pressure on my maligned left toenails, reminding me that I also forgot to trim a couple of them back. Our run is two out-and-back laps along the lake, and now we have the wind at our backs on the way out and a headwind coming home. With the wind at my back, I really feel like I’m flying along, and I’m picking slower runners off one by one. One guy passes me, but by the end of the day, we’ll have run side by side for a while before he runs away from me a few km from home. Coming back into the wind on the first lap isn’t enjoyable, especially with the persistent rain, but I’m able to keep my pace up and I make halfway at about 1:39.

The spectators seem to be pretty fired up by the mohawk and I get to have fun with lots of them. All the support from the crowd definitely brightens the soggy mood!

Going back out with the wind at my back, more than halfway home, I focus only on keeping my speed up; there’s no risk of bonking now. Just a couple km before the last turnaround, with 12km left to go, I feel a sickening rip at the front of my left shoe as one of those toenails tears itself out. Within a few steps, I decide that slowing down or stopping to attend to it could be the end of me, force myself to keep my pace up, and ignore the pain.

The last 10km, all into the wind and driving rain, are difficult, as my energy reserves have dwindled fast. I’m able to maintain my pace by virtue of having lots of people to pass and bring it home with every last bit of energy I’ve got.

It’s a 3:21 marathon and I cross the line a few seconds before 10:20 rolls around. I managed to pass 166 people during the run and only got passed by 1. Into the tent for food, massage, food, and a painful unveiling of my toenails to the medical personnel. Afterwards, it’s back to the hotel for a couple beers and a glorious Double Whopper, the first fast food I’ve eaten in New Zealand after nearly 4 months.

So all in all, I had a better swim than I expected, not quite the ride I was looking for, and a better run than I ever could have imagined. I missed the overall time I wanted by a bit on a day with tough weather conditions. I wish I hadn’t made the mistake with my seat height as that likely affected my bike time, but I see it as a learning experience. Any disappointment I have, though, is more than made up for by that fantastic run.

Not sure what my next race will be but I’m sure enjoying some relaxation and naughty eating habits! 5 days after the race now and my legs feel fine but my cardiovascular system is still shattered.

Here’s the rundown on my fellow Epic Campers who raced:

Aussie Andrew- Had a strong day with a good swim and a good bike but tailed off a bit on the run for 11:05.

Cardiologist Doug- Won the 45-49 age group! Blazed the swim and the bike and finished off with an equally impressive run for 9:42 and a slot at the World Championship in Kona.

Policeman Mike- Had a great swim and started off like a freight train on the bike but crashed around 110km in the rain and DNFed. Clearly a disappointment for him as he was planning on retiring after ending this race on a high note. We may see him again…

Roto-Paul- Clearly in a class of his own. Goes sub-5 on the bike and backs it up with a 3:10 marathon for 9:08 and 13th overall. Wow.

So that’s it for Taupo and Ironman New Zealand! I’ll add some more pictures when they’re available.

Past Detritus